Until recently the head of a government seemingly obsessed with introducing new rules and regulations, Tony Blair is an unlikely person to argue for more risk in life.
Yet in a speech two years ago to the Institute of Public Policy Research, he observed: "We are in danger of having a wholly disproportionate attitude to the risks we should expect to run as a normal part of life."
At the time, what garnered the most attention was Blair's comment that something was "seriously awry" when teachers felt unable to take children on school trips for fear of being sued should an accident occur.
But he also spoke about pressure on policymakers, both at government and local levels, to act to eliminate risk in a way that was disproportionate to the potential damage.
"The result is a plethora of rules, guidelines, responses to 'scandals' of one nature or another that ends up having utterly perverse consequences," Blair said.
As Professor John Adams of University College London noted when he spoke at this year's Association of Insurance and Risk Managers conference in London, the outgoing prime minister's worries about excessive reaction to risk don't quite tally with the actions of his government over the past 10 years. They have added to the regulatory burden.
Nor have his worries prevented the U.K.'s Cabinet Office from pushing through a raft of new proposals for eliminating risk.
Evidence suggests that enterprise and self-reliance are being suffocated. The British Chambers of Commerce reckons the cumulative burden to U.K. businesses of regulation passed since 1998 exceeds $115 billion, and compliance has taken up significant management time. Yet the regulatory tide continues to rise. The growth in demand for risk assessments and other measures for ensuring compliance shows no letup.
The latest, the British Standards Institution's code of practice for risk management--the British Standard 2599 Business Continuity Management--was published in July and declares itself to be "a basis for understanding, developing, implementing and maintaining risk management within any organization, in order to enhance an organization's likelihood of successfully achieving its objectives."
It also "establishes the principles and terminology for risk management, and gives recommendations for the model, framework, process and implementation of risk management."
Professor Adams, who is the author of "Risk," places himself firmly at the head of the contrarians in suggesting that there is "a compulsion to assess the hell out of each and every risk."
Concerned that U.K. commerce, industry and the public sector increasingly labor under the perceived requirement to produce assessments on every type of imaginable risk, he coined the memorable acronym CRAP, or Compulsive Risk Assessment Psychosis.
CRAP also sums up the pseudoscience triggered by today's risk-averse society, which attempts to derive alarming results from superficial risk assessments.
One of Adams' favorite targets has been the alarmist reports on the supposed dangers of electromagnetic fields. The impossibility of proving that transmission masts pose no serious risk to health has, he contended, triggered the assumption that they therefore must be dangerous and lead to alleged symptoms such as "electromagnetic hypersensitivity" suffered by those living close to high-transmission electric lines.
According to one report, Sweden has a registered 300,000 ES (electrosensitive) sufferers, which would, if correct, mean one in 30 of the population is afflicted.
RISK VERSUS REWARD
As Adams pointed out in his AIRMIC conference presentation, we all have some propensity for risk-taking. Risky behavior sometimes leads to accidents that, usually, we survive and learn from, while it also offers the prospect of reward. The early pioneers exploring uncharted regions of the globe exemplified this spirit of risk-taking, and a number paid with their lives.
But this adventurous spirit has given way to the multiplying "signs of nervousness" that characterize modern society. Warning signs, alerting people to the obvious consequences of stupid behavior, have proliferated. A takeout container of coffee must have printed on it the declaration that it contains a hot beverage, while a cactus has an attached warning that it is covered in sharp spines and will cause injury if touched.
It has also added some curious new terms to the lexicon, among them "injidents." The British Medical Journal coined the word in June 2001, when it outlawed the use of the word "accident" and proposed substituting this new term for injury-producing accidents.
What has created such a climate of risk aversion? Adams cited legislators, purveyors of guidance such as Sarbanes-Oxley and enforcers (the U.K.'s Health and Safety Executive being a primary example) as the main offenders. Given the opportunity to deregister with the Securities and Exchange Commission and escape the strictures of Sarbanes-Oxley, a host of European companies discontinued their U.S. stock market listings earlier this summer, among them British Airways.
Add to this three basic categories of risk--those that can be perceived directly and easily comprehended, such as crossing a busy street; those perceived through science and which take a scientific training to understand fully; and those dubbed "virtual risk," which scientists either are still investigating or cannot agree on. The latter spans issues ranging from global warming and the effects of mad cow disease to low-level radiation and mobile phones. "If science, maths or quantification can't settle the issue, you are then thrown back on judgment," commented Adams.
The potential link between eating meat and developing the human form of mad cow disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, is a prime example of virtual risk. University of California scientist Stanley Prusiner has devoted three decades to researching the relationship.
We know that meat from cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy poses a health risk, but much is still unknown. So attitudes to the BSE/CJD issue have divided into four main categories, suggested Adams:
* Egalitarian: those that regard nature as fragile, ephemeral and threatened and take the view that feeding dead animals to cattle and sheep (the now-outlawed practice that sparked the BSE epidemic) as unnatural and perverted.
* Individualist: the group of individuals with by far the most cheerful disposition, whose view is that, unless a practice is proved to be harmful, it can be assumed to be safe.
* Fatalist: those that have a resigned attitude and feel they have little or no control over significant events affecting their lives. Their attitude to the BSE/CJD issue is that the scientists are more deserving of being shot than the calves.
* Hierarchist: those made uncomfortable by the presence of virtual risk and who believe public policy should be in the hands of the government and not the scientists.
While hindsight demonstrates that it isn't possible to identify every conceivable risk, this hasn't prevented today's peddlers of pseudoscience from spreading anxiety, suggested Adams.
The downside of society's growing aversion to risk is perhaps most evident in the impact on children, he said. Parents' fears have spiraled out of proportion; a U.K. study found that in 1971 the journey to school was made unaccompanied by 80 percent of 7- and 8-year-olds. This figure steadily reduced over two decades to reach only 9 percent by 1990 and is now practically zero.
Add to this a more recent report from the Good Childhood Inquiry, a two-year independent investigation of modern childhood overseen by the Children's Society, which found that two-thirds of British children aged 8 to 10 had never been to a shop or park unaccompanied, and one-third in the same age group never played outside without an adult present. The report also found that overprotection meant that fewer teenagers aged 16 had a trusted best friend than was the case 20 years ago.
Yet statistics suggest British children today are safer than their parents born in the '70s. The incidence of serious accidents has reduced while frequency of child murders has remained little changed. As a newspaper commentator recently noted: "British children might be the safest in the world, and the most overprotected, but they are perceived as targets of social kleptomania."
What are the prospects for reversing this trend? Adams believed that there was a much greater level of trust in the days of close-knit communities, which might well be irrevocably lost. However, he perceived the beginnings of a backlash against the increasing malign influence of CRAP.
"But it's only rhetoric at this stage," he acknowledged. "The trend is still in the wrong direction."
GRAHAM BUCK lives in England.
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September 1, 2007
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